Setting the Record Straight

I’m learning a lot about politics in my run to be your mayor. The mayor’s debates have been particularly interesting. I think if someone did an analysis of the amount of airtime the candidates spend looking backwards at what has or hasn’t been done, and pointing fingers, we’d see that a lot of the time is spent on this.

I’ve been trying to keep my spirits up and to stay focused, looking forward, on the future of Victoria, and on the city that we will create, together if I’m elected on November 15th. I relish the opportunity to serve as your mayor and I feel really excited about the energy I sense in the community about change and possibility and a new way of doing politics.

There has been some misinformation, so I want to set the record straight and share my perspective on a few issues that are really important to me, and to you as well.

Crystal Pool
The word on the street is that I plan to privatize Crystal Pool. I don’t. On October 13th2013, the day Council was asked to vote on whether we want to have a publicly owned and operated swimming pool or not, I published this blog post. In it I said, “I support the retention of a public pool and fitness centre in Victoria. And, to be perfectly clear, I support this facility being operated by the City and staffed by our terrific, competent and very capable workers.”

I also said, should the City decide to rebuild rather than refurbish the pool, that we keep our options open as to how we get to a publicly run swimming pool. My commitment to Victorians in my detailed election platform is to develop a business case for a Crystal Pool and Wellness Centre that incorporates a publicly owned and operated swimming pool and recreation centre as well as commercial / retail space and housing. This may require a partnership with the non-profit or private sector for the housing portion and for the commercial space (for doctor’s office, massage therapist, chiropractor etc).

When I was asked to vote on the issue at the Council table, it was framed as a black and white choice. In order to keep the City’s options open, to innovate, and to look for creative solutions, I was forced to vote “no”.  There was no outside the box option available. The spirit of leadership that I bring to the table is to look for a common goal – a publicly owned and operated swimming pool – and a willingness to find new and creative ways to get there.

City of Victoria Housing Trust Fund
Early in our term of Council we were considering the contribution that the City makes to the City and the Regional Affordable Housing Trust Funds. Every year the City puts $500,000 into these trust funds. Early in my term, Council was considering reducing this to $400,000 per year for the next three years.

We were making this decision in October 2012. From July to October 2012, I had undertaken budget workshops across the City to ask Victoria residents and business owners for their input on the 2013-2015 budget. The number one concern I heard from seniors was that Victoria is getting too expensive. While Council may have capped the property tax increase, their pensions weren’t going to increase that much every year.

The voices and concerns of the seniors were on my mind when I voted, at Governance and Priorities Committee in favour of reducing the City’s contribution to affordable housing to $400,000 per year.

But then, in the two weeks between the committee decision and the Council decision (which is where we make final policy decisions) I learned something important. I learned that each $10,000 the City contributes to new affordable housing projects, leverages $1.4 million in contributions for other funders. So in voting to cut $100,000 I’d actually be cutting $14 million in potential funding. With this new information in hand, I voted in favour of keeping the City’s contribution at $500,000 per year. As a leader I’m willing to change course when I get new information and evidence.

In my platform I commit, in year three of our term, to see if there is money in the budget to increase the amount we put into the affordable housing trust funds.

Tax Exemptions for Non-Profits
In this past term, Council reviewed its non-profit tax exemption policy. In so doing, we found something troubling. In 2006, Council had changed its tax exemption program so that new applicants to the program were granted only a 50% property tax exemption. At the same time, Council grandfathered a 100% permissive property tax exemption for all organizations that already received a tax exemption.

Frankly put, organizations that had received a tax exemption before 2006 received a 100% exemption. Organizations which had applied after 2006 received only a 50% exemption. This is unfair and it is an unequal application of policy.

Council wanted to make sure that City policy is applied fairly to all the amazing organizations that do important charitable and community service work in the community. And I also understand the challenges facing this sector, having worked in it for many years. So we voted to phase in a 50% exemption for everyone over a 10-year period to give the organizations receiving a 100% exemption time to adapt to the new policy gradually.

Thank you
Thanks for taking the time to read this post and for continuing to share your thoughts and concerns with me going forward. I welcome a diversity views, even when they differ from my own. This is part of how I learn. For me, continuous learning and ongoing dialogue are key qualities that I’ll bring to the role of mayor.

Accountability and Public Participation

City Hall needs to do a better job of spending your dollars, and we need to involve you in the process. As your mayor, I will ask for your input and I will listen to you to help shape the City and its future.

Learn more about my record of accountability during my term on council:
http://focusonline.ca/?q=node/793

See more videos at https://www.youtube.com/user/VotingHelps

Housing Ends Homelessness

Last week, both the Chamber of Commerce and the Victoria Foundation’s Vital Signs Survey identified homelessness and housing as top priorities. When business and community come together and identify a common priority, we need to take action.

Risk of Homelessness Increasing

Since 2008 when the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness was founded, we’ve made some progress in the City and the region. Yet according to a recent study on Patterns of Homelessness in Greater Victoria between 2010-2014, more people sought temporary shelter in 2014 than in 2010. And shelter capacity went from 86% in 2010 to 112% in 2014. (See Figures 1 and 2 below.) We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

The most striking finding of the study is that the vast majority of people who used shelters between 2010 and 2014 are not chronically or episodically homeless. In the four-year study period, 655 people stayed in shelters experienced ‘episodic’ and ‘chronic’ homelessness (see Figures 4 and 5 below). Just over 3600 people experienced temporary homelessness. They just need an affordable place to live.

The report concludes, “The sheer number of individuals who resorted to accessing emergency shelter indicates a lack of homelessness prevention services and emphasizes the need to address low income and affordable housing issues in Greater Victoria to prevent homelessness.”

Innovative Pilot Project 

Today, I announced a plan for a pilot project that would work with willing private sector landlords to designate 10% of rental units in 10 buildings as supportive and affordable housing units for 10 years.

The pilot project would see Victoria City Hall work with willing building owners to immediately address the urgent need for supportive and affordable housing in the City of Victoria. In exchange for designating 10% of units in their building as affordable and supportive housing for 10 years, property owners would receive a property tax exemption that would offset their lost revenue and leave a bit of money in their pockets at the end of the day as an incentive to participate in the program. There are a few private sector landlords who rent units at an affordable rate through various existing programs. The proposed pilot project would provide an incentive.

Half of the units would be designated as affordable housing to help address homelessness further “upstream”. With cost of living on the rise, the need for affordable housing is growing every year. If the pilot project proves successful, City Hall would pursue opportunities for expansion.

Moving Victoria Forward

In order to move Victoria forward and to create opportunities, we first need to make sure that people can afford to call our city home. This project is a result of months of working with stakeholders, and one willing landlord has already expressed interest. Everyone agrees that the growing need for affordable and supportive housing is a top priority so I am eager to champion greater collaborative action.

 

A City Hall that Works for You

A City Hall that Works

Having a vibrant city with festivals, activities for families downtown, beautiful new buildings, safe and welcoming public spaces, affordable housing, and a strong local economy built on a solid foundation of thriving local businesses is good for everyone. Businesses create jobs while providing a place to get that delicious Americano, a loaf of bread, a good lunch.

During my time on Council, I’ve received countless calls and heard numerous stories from people trying to start small businesses in our city – Fry’s Bread, Wheelie’s Motorcycle Café, Shatterbox Coffee, among many. All of these businesses are run by local people choosing to stay in Victoria. They employ people. And yet, each of them struggled through City Hall’s processes that took far longer than necessary to open, creating an unnecessary and expensive burden for a start-up to shoulder. This is a problem. It prohibits growth.

Similarly, building permits, home renovations, larger scale developments, and organizations building affordable housing are all an important part of the City’s economy. Yet they take unreasonably long, and the steps are often unclear and unpredictable. This leads to frustration. It also tempts people to build without a permit to avoid the red tape at City Hall. People tell me, “Next time, I’m not coming into City Hall. It takes too long and time is money when you’re hiring contractors to do the work.” This is a problem.

Reality Check

For much of the last three years, despite the City having adopted a Customer Service Action Plan, and opening both a Customer Service Centre and a new Planning and Development Centre, the situation hasn’t changed at a fundamental level. City Hall has great staff. Our staff isn’t the problem. The problem is how City Hall is organized – as a series of silos.

In the last eight months, under our new City Manager’s “one city” approach, we have finally begun to make some headway. But the reality is that a City Manager can’t change everything. What’s needed is a mayor with a vision and a plan for running City Hall as an organization that directs its resources towards the goal of making Victoria a prosperous place.

How We Make City Hall Work

To solve these problems takes strong, focused, bold leadership. Run-of-the-mill political leadership isn’t enough, focused so often on re-election rather than best practices. Victoria needs a mayor with a rich and diverse leadership background who understands complexity.

An organization like City Hall is a complex system; all the parts need to be working as a whole focused on the goal of creating local prosperity. If City Hall were run in this way, Wheelie’s, Shatterbox, Fry’s Bread and many other businesses would have been open much sooner, making them more viable from the outset. It would be less stressful to renovate your home. Development projects could be built in a more efficient way, with important decisions being made at the front end of the process. Affordable housing projects would move ahead more quickly. It would be easier for citizens to turn new ideas into action. Victoria would be more prosperous.

Leading for Positive Change

For the past 17 years, I have held a number of leadership positions in Victoria. Nearly 20 years ago, I managed UVic’s Martlet newspaper. I was Board Chair of Fernwood NRG during the revitalisation of the Cornerstone Building and the construction of affordable housing at Park Place. I was Chair of the Bread and Roses Collective, which produced the Victoria Street Newz (now The Megaphone). I helped shape and deliver the Leadership Victoria curriculum. I founded and was Executive Director of Community Micro Lending – an organization that provides mentorship and facilitates loans for small-business start-ups. For the last three years I’ve served as a City Councillor, immersing myself in the issues facing this city, both in Council Chambers and on the ground with citizens.

Working within and across many sectors, I’ve learned how to manage and lead in a way that breaks down silos and creates connections. Victoria needs a mayor who understands complexity and who can bring her diverse leadership experience to bear on the problems at City Hall.

Victoria’s next mayor also needs to understand that a mayor is more than one vote on Council. A mayor is also the CEO of the Corporation of the City of Victoria and has the responsibility to work with her senior management team to help shape how City Hall works and serves. My plan is to transform City Hall into an organization that works as a system, with all staff in all departments working together to serve our residents and businesses.

How a boarded up building became the heart of a community: The Cornerstone Story

I was talking with a downtown business owner yesterday evening. She, like many, is concerned about the increased number of vacancies downtown over the past few years. We see this every day in the for lease signs that have become all too common in downtown storefronts. “We need to do downtown what you did in Fernwood,” she said to me. And she pointed to the creativity, innovation and bold action that me and others at Fernwood NRG took to address a big vacancy in the heart of our village centre and to revitalize the neighbourhood.  

It was early 2005. Fernwood Square, which had once been filled with patrons from the Thin Edge of the Wedge spilling into it, had become eerily quiet. The George and Dragon Pub once a lively neighbourhood gathering place across the street had fewer customers with each passing day. Worst of all, City officials had boarded up the building at the corner of Fernwood and Gladstone and declared it unsafe for habitation.

At the time, I was vice-chair of the board of the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group (Fernwood NRG). I’d gotten involved in the neighbourhood a year earlier because I wanted to put my community building skills to work in the place I lived.

Fernwood NRG’s Executive Director had a bold idea. She proposed that Fernwood NRG buy and revitalize the boarded up building. Until that point Fernwood NRG mostly ran childcare and senior’s programs. But there was a desperate need to create vibrancy in the heart of our neighbourhood. And, if not us, then who?

In August 2005, after complex negotiations and very creative financing (not even our local credit union would give us a mortgage so we ended up negotiating a high-interest mortgage with the seller) the Cornerstone Building came into neighbourhood hands.

It was with ruthless clarity of vision and hard work that a small non-profit turned a derelict building into the beating heart of our neighbourhood. While negotiations were underway to purchase the building, the board of directors put together a business plan. Did we lease the primo corner unit to someone else or open a café ourselves? Did we strata the building and sell off condos on the top floor or did we fill a gap of much-needed affordable housing?

We had a long-term vision. And we also had the passion, dedication, gifts and skills of our neighbours. Working hard together we created the Cornerstone building as a thriving social enterprise, beginning with the popular Cornerstone Café.

It’s an innovative model – Fernwood NRG sells great coffee and food and re-invests the profits in its programs that serve neighbourhood residents. The café was only the beginning of a promising trend for the village centre. Fernwood NRG also signed a long-term lease with Stage restaurant, catering to Belfry Theatre patrons. In addition, the building now houses The Yoga Den and Studio 1313, Canada’s first social-enterprise hair salon.

Upstairs four families moved into the three-bedroom affordable housing units. Between 2004 and 2006, the residential vacancy rate in Victoria was 0.5 per cent, the lowest of all Canada’s metropolitan areas, while the average rent for three-bedroom apartments was $1,126 per month. Fernwood NRG’s Cornerstone Building didn’t just generate revenue for the neighbourhood. It also filled a core social need.

This growth and vibrancy spread beyond the Cornerstone. Across the street, the George and Dragon changed hands, was renovated and opened as the Fernwood Inn. It’s now a lively neighbourhood gathering place. And there’s a colourful local market, Aubergine Grocery, next door.

Today, the heart of Fernwood stands as an example of bold vision coupled with hard work and collaboration. Just take a walk through and you can feel it. Victoria, too, has all the talent it needs to overcome any challenges we face. All that is needed is a deep understanding of the issues, bold leadership, a willingness to think outside the box, and a City Hall that fosters and supports new ideas.

To read more Fernwood NRG and the Cornerstone project, head here

Property Taxes 101

Property taxes have gone up 26% over the last six years. Good tax policy and living within our means is needed to create an affordable city for Victoria’s residents and businesses alike. I have a plan to keep property taxes in line with inflation, or better for the next four years. I also have thoughts on the impact that freezing the property tax ‘mill rate’ for four years would have – both on commercial property owners and on the fiscal management of City Hall.

Before I share my plan to keep property taxes in line with inflation, and look more closely at the impact of freezing the property tax mill rate, here’s a property tax primer. What is the mill rate anyways?

Property Taxes 101
The City divides property owners into six classes. 
Residential and business make up the vast majority of property. To create its annual budget, the City multiplies the assessed value (which is produced independently by BC Assessment every January) by a ‘mill rate’ for each class of property. The ‘mill rate’ is set independently by the City to produce the amount of revenue required for the City’s operations.

The City runs a surplus annually. Unlike other levels of government, municipalities are not allowed to run deficits. The surplus varies from year to year and is transferred to the City’s infrastructure reserve fund at the end of the year. This reserve fund is important to the City’s long-term sustainability. The City uses its reserves for important infrastructure like water and sewer pipes, parks, roads and greenways. With reduced or no surpluses in the annual budget, infrastructure reserves would shrink. This would compromise the City’s ability to care for its infrastructure for the long term.

Taxes collected make up roughly 55% of the City’s annual budgeted revenues. User fees for water, sewer and garbage are other ways the city earns revenue to provide services.

New tax revenue from new growth is based on re-assessments of properties on which there is construction – new buildings and building improvements. New tax revenue has decreased significantly in the last five years. The last two years are dire:

2009:  $1,958,701
2010:  $1,878,822
2011:  $1,659,973
2012:  $328,105
2013:  $108,640

These numbers show what I hear a lot – that it’s hard and slow to get through the processes at City Hall to build or improve a building in Victoria.

My Plan
Fix City Hall so it works
 and so that in can play a role in creating a beautiful, vibrant city and new tax revenue. Foster and support new, sensitive, beautiful buildings and enterprises in Victoria by creating an Economic Development Office (start up funding to come through the City’s Economic Development Reserve Fund). Support small business and reduce downtown retail and commercial vacancies through the creation of an Enterprise Facilitator position in the Economic Development Office. More details 
here.

Overhaul City Hall and create an innovative, creative work culture where front-line staff are empowered to innovate and look for cost savings. Working with The Pacific Institute, the City of Saskatoon did this between 2004 and 2009. In 2009, the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses named Saskatoon the most business friendly city in Canada. And, between 2004 and 2009 Saskatoon saved $56 million dollars. Not by cutting and slashing services, but by working smarter and encouraging cooperation and innovation throughout the organization. And yes, it’s a unionized workplace, just like the City of Victoria.

With City Hall working and new revenue from new development coming in and with innovation, creativity and cost-savings realized, I will work with Council and city management to keep property taxes in line with inflation, or better.

Freezing the Mill Rate is Not Freezing Taxes
Freezing the mill rate means that if the assessed value of properties goes up, taxes will go up. If the assessed value of property goes down, taxes will go down. In both cases, control of city finances is surrendered to the vagaries of the market. Property owners could find themselves paying dramatically more, or the City’s budget might have a hole blown in it. And, worst of all, we wouldn’t know it until the year in question. Remember, the City only gets the assessment information in January of the budget year. This is no way to govern an organization that is run with public dollars.

Finally, freezing the mill rate would prevent the City from continuing to re-balance between residential and business taxes. In 2010, the business mill rate was 3.59 to 1 versus the residential mill rate. Today it is 3.18 to 1. We’ve made a bit of progress in the past few years and I will keep working on this for the next four.

Sensible Tax Policy
What I’m hearing over and over again is that Victorians want to live in a place they can afford. And they want a city government that takes into consideration their ability to pay as it sets its budget and tax rate each year and decides how to spend their money.

Proposed Development at St. Andrews School – My Ears Are Open

 

The proposed development at St. Andrew’s school site that runs from Pandora, to Vancouver, to Mason will be a really difficult decision for me at the public hearing on September 11th. As elected officials, we’re legally required to keep our minds open until the public hearing. My mind is open and so are my ears.

Here’s the conflict I find myself in.

On the one hand, this type of development on this site is what the Official Community Plan (OCP) envisions: compact and dense developments on major corridors near village centres. And, in terms of height and density, what Bosa Properties proposes to build is less than the official community plan envisions. When 6000 people gave input to the Official Community Plan, there was an overwhelming consensus that people wanted a land use plan organized around strong village centres and density in villages to support village businesses. Now when it comes to implementation and people see what this actually could look like on the ground, the theory in a city planning document meets the complexity of real life and the lived experiences and desires of people living in these village centres.

On the other hand, as a North Park resident and friend reminded me during our email correspondence on this topic, the role of a city councilor is to work with developers to go beyond the simple wording of the OCP to explore the spirit and intent of the wording and how these can meet the needs of the neighbourhood and the community.

Last Thursday at a Council meeting Jesse from Mason Street City Farm presented a petition with 450 signatures on it opposing the development and made a compelling presentation. Until then, I wasn’t aware that opposition to the project was so strong. I’m meeting with Jesse and Angela from Mason Street City Farm on Monday. I’m meeting with Mark from Bosa on Wednesday.

North Park residents, at least 450 of them, seem to have a different vision for this site. As my friend and North Park resident said, “We have repeatedly told Victoria City Council that we want to be the city’s ‘yes in my back yard’ neighbourhood. We feel this is both our duty as the city’s downtown neighbourhood, and also our reward for disproportionately shouldering many of the city’s urban complexities.

“It is not a handful of Mason Street property owners opposing Bosa’s plan. It is a group of intelligent, engaged, diverse neighbourhood residents who think Bosa’s plan is deeply flawed.

“We are looking for leadership from City Hall on this neighbourhood-changing re-development. And we are looking for game-changing development – precisely the kind that a recent Douglas Magazine ‘Shift in the city’ article talks about!”

I was interviewed for this article in April. I said that, “The outcome of the St. Andrew’s school site will indicate the City’s direction for the next 30 years. If Bosa is turned down, that sends a message that we’re not serious about re-development.” My hope is that it’s not too late to create a win-win situation: a development at that site that does set Victoria’s direction for the next 30 years as a compact, sustainable city – and a development that also incorporates the visions and desires of North Park residents. 

To participate in the democratic process and share your thoughts on this proposal join us at City Hall Thursday September 11th at 7pm.  I will post final plans and agenda package for the site here when we receive it this Friday. 

On Business and City Business

A number of people in the business community have asked me to spell out both my values and my intentions for business and the economy, should I be elected Mayor of Victoria.

Three foundational convictions
The following three statements summarize my beliefs and convictions, based on my local experiences with small business start-ups at 
Community Micro Lending, and as a councilor over three years:

  • Successful enterprise is critical to overall city success and it is the defining condition of a prosperous downtown.  As your mayor I will demonstrate an understanding of business fundamentals including risk, timing, and responsiveness. I will work to meet your needs and opportunities with “Yes, City Hall can help make that happen.” Attitude is key, and this kind of responsiveness is essential.
  • A positive climate for new business creation is integral to keeping the city dynamic, making it a magnet for talent and investment, and creating job opportunities and high employment. This is a dire necessity as 50% of Victorians earn $27,000 or less per year.
  • Business health and local wealth generation are key components of Victoria’s social well-being, physical beauty and rich cultural life. 

A sleeves-rolled-up approach
I have carefully studied the City’s decision-making culture over the years. I am convinced that there is a lot more room for a sleeves-rolled-up approach, where process doesn’t serve as an excuse for inaction. In Victoria, it’s not only business that is frustrated with City Hall’s lack of responsiveness and jungle of red tape, community groups are equally frustrated and these are often small organizations run largely by volunteers. The following is what I will accomplish in terms of making City Hall dynamic, inviting and truly ‘open for business’ in my first term as mayor:

Downtown: We will create a thriving, prosperous and attractive downtown. How? By creating a “Downtown Prosperity Project” with a budget, four year-timeline and clear deliverables. By investing in downtown public spaces. By working in strong partnership with the Downtown Victoria Business Association, downtown property owners and downtown residents. The most successful projects I have led are ones that have been collaborative. It is only in working together that we will succeed.

Downtown residential: City living will become a priority. The CRD estimates that City of Victoria (whole city) population increased by only 300 persons between 2012 and 2013, and that this meagre growth level will continue for more than the next decade. The absence of a ‘home-grown’ downtown residential population increases challenge and risk for our businesses and for the entire property sector. We need downtown to be red hot.  We need a dramatic and rapid expansion in the downtown and shoulder residential population to provide local, in-built support for all of our downtown businesses.  I propose to modify the bonus density program, make it more straightforward and create exemptions. We’re looking for beautifully scaled and detailed developments, not density caps.  Historically, Victoria has acted as if it had all the time in the world. Suburban competition—retail and service—shows how foolish that attitude has been.  My view is: if you snooze, you lose. The above program needs to happen now, now, now.

Local economy: Let’s free up some resources to create an Economic Development Office at City Hall. Appoint a mayor’s Economic Development Cabinet to provide ongoing advice to the Economic Development Office (detailed blog post to come). Staff the office with the people who understand both the city’s processes and the private sector. Set clear timelines and deliverables. And measure our success.

City projects: Let’s create a stronger culture of project management at City Hall. We spend large amounts of public money on capital projects like the Johnson Street Bridge. And coming in the next four years are sewage treatment, a new firehall and a refurbished Bay Street Bridge. As the capital City of British Columbia, I’d like to change the city’s reputation as a place that can’t tie its own shoelaces. In February we hired a new City Manager who is already beginning to take strides in the right direction. I would like to work alongside him and to make the City a model of excellence in project management.

Development: Approvals/licensing/permitting processes will be simplified and sped-up.  The new business message from the City will be “How can we help you get to yes?”  Implement predictable approvals processes that happen in the minimum amount of time possible by managing the city like a system where there are no silos. Everyone is working together towards the aim of effective, efficient, quality service.

Partnerships: We have the opportunity to make the city a champion of partnerships. New pocket parks, green spaces and public art, a new public library and crystal pool. In the 21st century, collaboration is key. I don’t even want to think of these things as taxpayer burdens, they are business opportunities offering room for collaboration between the City, its people, and enterprise. This doesn’t mean we can’t have a publicly owned and operated library or swimming pool. It just means that the path we take to get there is not simply to raise taxes and build. Cities across North America are engaged in a Metropolitan Revolution. I know Victoria can be on the leading edge.

Fees: Review all current fees to business: are they fair and necessary, or just a cash grab?  If they don’t pass the test, dump ‘em.

Comparative cities: Have the City’s Economic Development Office look to what other enterprising cities have done to foster and support sustainable economic development, create prosperity and get a handle on property tax increases. West Vancouver and other cities that have successfully frozen property taxes.  That’s right: zero.  This doesn’t mean cutting and slashing at City Hall. It means working more collaboratively, adaptively and responsively. The research is clear – organizations that have adaptive, responsive and collaborative work environments use their resources more prudently, generate more revenue, more creatively and are also great places to work. This is my goal for City Hall.

My Pledge to You
I pledge to spend my first six months in office setting City Hall up to do all these things. And I pledge to make City Hall into a place that is dynamic and that works hard and works for everyone.

And, finally, if you’ve got innovative ideas that you want to share, my ears are open. E-mail me or call me at 250-661-2708.

Building Better Bridges – Why I Voted Against the Johnson Street Bridge Project

The Johnson Street Bridge replacement project is the talk of the town these days. This past weekend at the Phillips Backyard Weekender people were sipping great local beer and fretting over the potential cost increase of the project. Others said that at a weekend cocktail party, guests had grave concerns about who will pay if the price goes up – and that they’re watching my leadership on the issue closely.

What went wrong

In late March 2014, the City received a change order from PCL (the contractor building the bridge) for $7.9 million and a request to extend the project schedule by five and a half months. In response, Jason Johnson, the newly hired City Manager, engaged engineer Jonathan Huggett to review the project. Huggett’s report was made public last week. The report revealed three key problems with management of the project to date. 

1. No one had been put in charge of the project. As Huggett notes, “During my review I asked everyone involved a simple question: ‘Who is in charge of the project?’ Nobody could provide me with an answer.”

2. There is no official project schedule. A schedule had been submitted by PCL to the City on April 6 2013. But it is still unclear to Huggett whether all parties (MMM the City’s engineer, PCL and the City) agreed to this schedule.

3. The collaborative process that had been established in the contract to review issues as they arose had broken down.

Confronting Reality

These three facts leave Council and the public in a difficult situation. A recent Times Colonist editorial noted, “Fortin’s fixed-price fixation notwithstanding, Huggett has doubts that the project can be completed at the contract price.” At Council last week (watch here) Council and the public learned more about why it is unlikely that the project can be completed on budget.

Director of Engineering and Public Works told Council that, “We do still have a large part [of the contingency] which is unallocated; I think it is going quite well.”

Immediately after he spoke, Huggett stepped in. “It’s worth talking about the contingency,” he said. “It’s a concern to me. The problem that occurred [when the contract was awarded] is that some of the very key components were no more than a concept in somebody’s eye. There were elements of the project that were reduced to a 10% design. The problem comes that you have a bunch of components at 10% design with a contingency [budget] of less than 5% [of the total project budget.]”

Huggett’s conclusion? “Frankly, from what I know, the contingency is very small and is likely already used up. I promised you I wouldn’t come in here and try and sugar coat it.”

Moving Forward

I voted against awarding the contract to PCL in late 2012. My reason was simple. The design wasn’t far enough along to award the contract with only a 4% contingency budget. Now, it’s time to move beyond looking backwards and to do the best we can to get the project under control. Here’s how:

  1. Get a revised project budget as soon as possible. After learning last Thursday that the contingency is likely used up, I said that if that’s the case, Council needs to know what the potential cost increases are, as unpopular as that may be, so we can start planning. Huggett committed to getting Council a revised project budget by early September.
  2. Finalize and confirm a project schedule that all parties agree to. Huggett promised this within the coming weeks.
  3. Create a risk registry specific to the project (not a generic risk registry that has been used to date) and ensure that risk mitigation strategies are in place.
  4. Have someone in charge of the project and fix relationships among PCL, MMM and the City.  With Huggett at the helm and the collaborative spirit of our City Manager guiding the process, this is well in hand.

Council’s job is to go forward with eyes wide open. We need to hold Huggett to the commitments he made last Thursday. We need to be realistic about the cost of the project. And, most importantly, we need to keep the public – those paying for this new bridge – informed.

Moms Like Us

A month and a half ago, I had a call from a group of moms who all have adult children who live with mental illnesses. I met with them at City Hall rather than at my regular coffee shop location because they wanted privacy and confidence. They had come to ask for my help to bring an Accredited Clubhouse to Victoria like the Pathways Clubhouse in Richmond that they’d visited recently.

Despite everything I have on my plate right now, I said yes. I said yes because I was moved by their stories and by their passion. But I was most moved when one of them said, “We’re not only doing this for our children. We’re also doing this for people living on the street, people who are poor, people who face all sorts of barriers, people who don’t have moms like us.” “Moms Like Us!” I said, “that’s a great name for your group.” And so it is. 

Mother’s Day Post from Moms Like Us

What does it mean to be a mother? It is Mother’s Day this weekend and at the same time many of our local birds are nesting. There is a mother robin with her nest in a trellis outside our window. She sits for hours in the rain, wind, cold and heat to keep her eggs warm. I help her by chasing away the crows and squirrels that threaten her babies. As I watch throughout the day I am struck by the incredible responsibility that comes with motherhood. Mothers are hard wired to love, nurture, soothe, protect and defend their babies. A young mother, like the robin, has no idea what her special challenges will be.

Mothers of children with mental health issues can be faced with some unique challenges.

It is heart wrenching to watching a child sit alone in their room depressed while their siblings and other children join community sports teams or take music lessons. It feels helpless to find out your adolescent is so consumed with anxiety that going to school becomes impossible without a drink or a toke while other teenagers are taking part in all the school and social activities they can. It is hard to accept the reality that your young adult cannot cope with finding a job, applying for post secondary or making travel plans while their peers are building careers and long term relationships.

These challenges alone can be daunting but even more demanding is the difficult task navigating the mental health system to find the support for our children with brain illnesses. Sadly, even in this, the twenty-first century with all the access to information you could want, the stigma of mental illness is alive and well.

We know the sorrow of watching our child be judged by those who don’t understand or by professionals without compassion. We have dealt with the disappointment of researching services, that when our name is finally first on the wait list, they fail to deliver. We have wept upon hearing the horrifying details of an incident our child was involved in and knowing our child has been traumatized once again. We have contained our anger when yet another person suggests as mothers we are too involved with our adult children.

And through all this we ride the roller coaster of hope and despair… and never let go. We hang on at every turn because if we let go who will step up for our children? Mothers’ love is unconditional.

So as mothers we reach out to others who know what it is like to have a child with a mental health issue. Mothers who have compassion for each other as well as the passion to fight for the respect, dignity and skills their children need to be contributing members of their community.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers, but especially to moms like us.

To connect with Moms Like Us and for more information on our May 21st Clubhouse event, please email  momslikeus2014@gmail.com.